Police try to protect the U.S. Capitol from insurgents on Jan. 6. (Getty Images)

Experts from sports and entertainment events decry lack of preparation

Last week’s riot and breach of the U.S. Capitol building that left five people dead had security experts in sports and entertainment shaking their heads over the lack of preparedness over protests that turned violent.

VenuesNow spoke with a half-dozen industry professionals about lessons learned from the ugly incident. Those conversations turned into a tutorial for the highest levels of security at the U.S. government over the steps required to prepare for every scenario possible.

All of them agreed there was a total lack of preparation by law enforcement responsible for protecting lawmakers during the process of officially confirming Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. 

“What usually informs preparation is intelligence, and over the course of the past six months we’ve seen what’s happened with these uprisings,” said Mike Downing, chief security officer for Oak View Group and Prevent Advisors. (OVG is the parent firm of VenuesNow.) Downing previously spent 35 years as deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and 11 years in charge of counterterrorism. 

“You would think there would be some type of anticipatory intelligence to provide better information so that they can prepare,” he said. “You know there’s a lot of tension and the leader is kind of egging it on. When you plan an event like this, you look at the threat assessment, determine your resources and develop a commander’s intent so it’s clear to the people that are actually working the street.”

Capitol chaos aside, there are some takeaways for security at public assembly venues, including Raymond James Stadium, site of Super Bowl LV. As NFL officials prepare for the Feb. 7 game, Downing said they should be conducting a full incident command briefing over what happened in Washington and running tabletop exercises to help form a playbook for more potential riots.

“They need to go through a critical thinking exercise that everybody knows and they’re not going to have to think about it,” he said. “It’s going to come naturally because they’ve already practiced it. Send scouts out, looking for suspicious activity and develop evacuation routes in case of unlawful assembly. There are so many puzzle pieces that need to be put together on something like that.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy confirmed that this year’s Super Bowl has been classified as a National Security Special Event, as it has been over the past 20 years. Under the NSSE designation, Secret Service takes over control of security, bringing federal resources to the table for the high-profile event. The same is true for Biden’s inauguration set for Jan. 20 in the same location in front of the Capitol where the riot took place.

The Super Bowl was first designated as an NSSE activity in 2002, five months after 9/11, said Jim Steeg, a former NFL executive in charge of the event for 26 years. More than 100 Secret Service officers were on site at the Superdome in New Orleans, where the game was held, Steeg said. The designation changed how everything is done for both Super Bowl and regular-season NFL games.

“It became a layer over the top of what was already being done by local and state government, plus private security,” he said. 

For those in the business of running arenas and stadiums, organizing extensive security efforts is part of the routine. 

They know the importance of being proactive and making comprehensive security plans well in advance of high-profile events. They all learned from tragedies such as the bombing outside of Manchester Arena shortly after an Ariana Grande concert in 2017. Facility managers became more vigilant over the perimeters of their buildings after the deadly incident killed 22 people leaving the property, said security consultant Dan Donovan.

“Our counterparts in law enforcement are trained to be reactive, responding to a threat,” Donovan said. “Once you get into the private side, you must learn to be proactive. We’ve learned what’s happened when we don’t. I don’t know if a plan existed (at the Capitol) and it didn’t get authorized. They had the resources to stop it and had the intelligence. You could see (protesters) wearing combat gear. It’s not like they just showed up on your doorstep.”

Venue managers have learned to implement contingency plans after protests in Brooklyn and Sacramento over the past decade took place in front of NBA arenas Barclays Center and Golden 1 Center, according to Donovan.

“It forced our clients in those buildings to say, ‘OK, what’s our plan if we hear of a protest six blocks away?” he said. “What are we doing to protect our perimeter? The idea of protestors and the threat to these buildings is real. When we do security for the Dreamforce convention (at Moscone Center), we have protesters every year. We have a robust plan with San Francisco police. We tell the protesters ‘You’re free to protest anywhere you want, but you’re not coming past this point.’”

In Washington, protesters broke through a shaky perimeter of metal barricades, similar to typical bike racks, overwhelming an undermanned U.S. Capitol Police force. Insurgents eventually pushed their way into the building itself, breaking windows and assaulting multiple officers.

“My impression in talking to a few people that are closer to it is sometimes it’s as simple as the wrong person has the final say on which measures you put in place,” Donovan said.

Daren Libonati, a veteran facility manager in Las Vegas and now a consultant, watched it all unfold on live television. Over the course of his 30-year career, he’s dealt with Grateful Dead gate crashers at Sam Boyd Stadium and PETA protesters at the National Finals Rodeo at Thomas and Mack Center. 

“It’s all about space and distance, understanding your audience a little bit and having a game plan with people posted in positions for all the same reasons that I post high-powered rifle SWAT guys in case we have an issue,” Libonati said. 

“It’s embarrassing that we might be doing more than our Capitol and I’m running a 65,000-person festival and laying out strategy with law enforcement,” he said. “That was an easy audience to handle 500 yards from the venue if they would have done it right.”

The issue of security is a sensitive one for Libonati. He understands the unpredictability of live events, how things can quickly turn disastrous and why it’s imperative to have an emergency plan in place. During his 3 1/2-year stint with MGM Resorts International, Libonati was the producer for the Route 91 Harvest festival in 2017 in which 61 people were killed by a lone gunman from a nearby hotel. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

“We planned and prepared months in advance for that event,” he said. “We had briefings with every high-level entity in the city, from police to fire to EMT, Live Nation security and our security. We walked through a 147-page manual on all of the things that could (potentially) happen that day … from high winds to an active shooter.”

Sometimes, as was the case with the Vegas tragedy, there are things beyond everyone’s control. The Capitol Hill incident points to a lack of control over several levels of security and those images are stamped in America’s consciousness.

“Nothing is more disturbing than a loss of human life, but you’re not going to be able to get the vision of some clown in a buffalo hat sitting on somebody’s desk out of your head,” said veteran Bay Area sports executive Andy Dolich. “The hard part is how many of those insurgents had weapons and didn’t use them? That’s scary.”